January 29, 2008 / 6:47 PM / 12 years ago

FDA should be clearer on plan for food safety: GAO

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s failure to discuss clearly its strategy and the money needed to better protect the country’s food supply could make it harder for a plan to succeed, a congressional watchdog agency told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Last November, the Bush administration proposed stronger rules to better protect the country’s food supply. Some of the proposals require approval from Congress.

The Government Accountability Office said while the food safety inspection plan “proposes several positive first steps,” it has failed to explain what resources and how much additional funding it will need to implement it.

“Without a clear description of resources and strategies, it will be difficult for Congress to assess the likelihood of the plan’s success in achieving its intended results,” said Lisa Shames, a GAO director, in a report delivered to a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The FDA oversees 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and prepared foods. Food safety has been a worry for consumers due to safety scares tied to bagged spinach and peanut butter along with imports, mainly from China, of food, toys and other goods.

Among the recommendations by the Bush administration were allowing the FDA to have the authority to reach agreements with some countries to require certain high-risk foods meet specific standards before they can be exported. It also wanted to give FDA the power to order a recall of food when safety concerns arise, a move which would require congressional approval.

GAO said FDA must better leverage its existing resources “as staffing levels and funding have not kept pace with the agency’s growing responsibilities” to oversee the food supply.

GAO noted that even as food imports surge, FDA inspectors of foreign food firms has dropped from 211 in fiscal year 2001 to fewer than 100 in 2007. About 15 percent of the overall U.S. food supply is imported.

FDA’s Science Board, and advisory panel to the agency, said last month that FDA does not have the capacity, such as staffing and technology, to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply.

The report was part of a broader investigation into the FDA that said lives are at risk because the agency is behind in the latest scientific advances, and it is underfunded.

“Our constituents are growing weary of these events. They are losing confidence in this agency’s ability to protect them from the products they use daily,” said Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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